SPARKS, Part 2

Based on a sermon for Wildwind Community Church.

New Neighbor, a book by Leroy Barber, chronicles some of the stories of a missions organization called Mission Year. Mission Year is a ministry that invites people to live in urban communities for a year to learn and serve these communities. In this short excerpt, Carmen Williams shares a bit about how the experience changed her her:

“Mission Year changed how I view my role as a follower of Christ in this world. Mission Year taught me that my life is my ministry, that I must be an active participant in the world around me and be intentional about having an impact on my little corner of it.”

I have had this hunch that these kinds of experiences are essential to our spiritual formation. Recently, I came across some writings by Alan Hirsh that has helped me to confirm this hunch and given me the vocabulary to help understand what is going on. I want to share a couple of words that represent these big ideas and then show some places where we can see God working in this way to shape and form his people.

The words I want to share with you are liminality and communitas. First what is liminality?

Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives. Liminality comes from the Latin word limen which means threshold. It’s kind of like walking through the door from one way of thinking and opening yourself up to view the world through a new lens or point of view.

An anthropologist named Victor Turner came up with this term when he studied some rites of passage within African tribes. What he found in some tribes was that the younger boys were kept with the women until they reach the age of somewhere around thirteen. They actually slept in different huts than the men. At the right time, the men would sneak into their huts, kidnap the boys and take them into the African bush to fend for themselves for up to 6 months.

Sounds brutal, huh? Once a month the elders of the tribe go out to wherever they left the boys to debrief them and mentor them about what they are learning. This idea of liminality refers to a situation where people find themselves in an in-between state pushed to the margins of normal everyday life. This is a real out-of-the-comfort-zone experience.

And what happens during this experience of liminality moves the group from being individuals to the bond of comradeship. It knits the community together. This is what Turner calls communitas. Look at his definition: Communitas is a shared ordeal that creates intense feelings of social togetherness and belonging as people learn to stand together “outside” society, which results in society being strengthened.

Alan Hirsch says this, “the ideas of liminality and communitas describe the dynamics of the Christian community inspired to overcome their instincts to “huddle and cuddle” and to instead form themselves around a common mission that calls them onto a dangerous journey to unknown places – a mission that calls the church to shake off its collective securities and to plunge into the world of action, where its members will experience disorientation and marginalization but also where they encounter God and one another in a new way.” (The Forgotten Ways, 2007)

So think about the boys in the tribe. They are pulled from their everyday routine and are placed in an environment where they have to learn who they are, how to take care of themselves, how to care for others, and how to protect each other in order to survive. In doing this these boys are becoming men, the future leaders of the tribe. They are being changed by this dangerous, out-of-the-comfort-zone, shared experience that takes place in the margins of everyday life.

To be continued…

    • Chuck Hubbert
    • June 3rd, 2010

    These are great descriptions and definitions. I’ll be contemplating examples and models of these. Thanks!

    • I thought so too, Chuck. Some great words to hang some big ideas on. I guess the tough part can be moving from ideas to action. Tough, but usually worth it!

      Thanks for reading. Bless you!

  1. January 2nd, 2011

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